Monday, October 30, 2006

About 8% of Germans consume 40% of all the alcohol sold in the country

Der Spiegel's Berlin editor Gabor Steinhard has a new book on wealth and power that is being excerpted in his paper. On October 26, he deals with a new underclass that is nurtured by the (welfare) state while threatening its future.

An underclass that has an income comparable to those of police officers, warehouse workers and taxi drivers seems peculiarly German. I'm not sure to what extent Steinhard's concerns would apply to Anglo-Nordic countries, broadly defined. However, his depiction of a proletariat that is impoverished intellectually rather than physically is striking.

The underclass watch a lot of television, consume large amounts of fatty foods and alcohol, and have no interest in education. In a knowledge worker world where welfare states shrink in the face of Asian competitors, the future of the proletariat is bleak - and the risks for social upheaval significant.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Policy implications of the Cognitive Radio metaphor

Practitioners who use the cognitive radio metaphor understand that radios are not conscious in the ways that humans are; they use this term to inspire research, the results of which then stand on its own merits, separately from the guiding metaphor.

However, policy and business decision makers may not have such an informed and subtle perspective. “Cognitive radio” is such a powerful image that they may be tempted to take the metaphor at face value, and make inferences that reach beyond the bounds of the model.

For example, they may infer that cognitive radio systems will be as flexible and sophisticated as the cognitive system they know best: human beings. This inflates expectations. The “AI winter” of the late 1970s was due, in part, to the dearth of promised results despite substantial funding since the mid-1950s. While one cannot directly compare a new endeavor like cognitive radio with the relatively mature AI field in the Seventies, the lesson of expectation management is an obvious one.

The terminology may also lead decision makers to over-estimate the risks of cognitive radio. The Radios-as-People model not only entails that the devices will be smart, flexible, and intelligent; it also intimates that some will be malicious, devious, malevolent, deceitful, treacherous, untrustworthy, dangerous or destructive. Cognitive radio technology may be unfairly judged to be a severe security risk simply on the basis of the connotations its name evokes.

The “radio” part of the conceptual blend invites regulation where it might otherwise not be contemplated. Regulators have taken a largely hands-off approach to computing. However, governments have been regulating radio for almost a century; they are not only comfortable doing so, many feel it is their duty. While the blend of “cognitive” and “radio” may bring computing’s unregulated regime to wireless, it may conversely bring radio regulation to computing.

“Cognitive” implies informed behavior; cognitive radio thus raises the question of regulating radio behavior. Radio regulation to date has specified parameters so simple that the term “behavior” is scarcely merited. This regulation has applied almost exclusively to transmitters; receiver standards have been rare, and those that exist specify passive parameters like selectivity and spurious rejection [1]. Regulating cognitive radio thus raises challenges for agencies with scant experience with receiver standards, let alone software behavior verification.


[1] National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department Of Commerce (2003) , Receiver Spectrum Standards, Phase 1 – Summary of Research into Existing Standards, NTIA Report 03-404, at

Friday, October 27, 2006

Cognitive Radio as Metaphor

Cognitive radio is the integration of software radio and machine intelligence. The term, coined by Joe Mitola, describes a radio communications paradigm where a network or individual nodes changes communications parameters to adapt to a changing environment that includes both external factors like spectrum usage, and internal factors like user behavior. It blends the promise of artificial intelligence with the excitement of software-defined radio. Science often advances through the exploration of inspired metaphors like this one.

Here are some examples of the language of Cognitive Radio, taken from a review article by Mitola and Maguire [1]:
Part of the processor might be put to sleep. The radio and the network could agree to put data bits in the superfluous embedded training sequence. A radio that knows its own internal structure to this degree does not have to wait for a consortium. Cognitive radio, then, matches its internal models to external observations to understand what it means to commute to and from work. A cognitive radio can infer the radio-related implications of a request. The radio also warns the network.

Computing research is often informed by anthropomorphism, which is obvious here. The anthropomorphism fits easily with the dominant mental model of wireless communications, described in Mental models for wireless spectrum:
  • Spectrum as Land
  • Signals as Moving Objects, or as Sound
  • Radios as Sentient Agents
Here are some (lightly edited) examples from Mitola and Maguire, and Haykin [2]:

  • The electromagnetic radio spectrum is a natural resource (Spectrum-as-Resource)
  • The underutilization of the electromagnetic spectrum leads us to think in terms of spectrum holes (Spectrum-as-Resource, Spectrum-as-Space)
  • White spaces, which are free of RF interferers except for ambient noise (Spectrum-as-Space, Signals-as-Sound)
  • The stimuli generated by radio emitters (Radios-as-Agents)
  • In some bands, cognitive radios will simply compete with one another. (Radios-as-Agents)
  • The game board is the radio spectrum with a variety of RF bands, air interfaces, smart antenna patterns, temporal patterns, and spatial location of infrastructure and mobiles. (Spectrum as Space)
It’s a small step from Radios as Sentient Agents to Radios as People. The “cognitive radio” moniker works in part because the groundwork for the concept has been laid by the model of radios as sentient agents.

Cognitive radio technology presumes that networks as well as individual radios have intellective behavior, as in “The network then knows that this user ...” The image of a sentient network does not fit into the existing model as readily as that of a sentient radio. One can thus expect that lay people will not take up the concept of cognitive network as readily. To the extent that the default spectrum/signals/radios model determines the scope of wireless regulation, networks (as distinct from the radios that comprise them) will fall beyond the ambit of regulators.

Cognitive radio thinking has some affinities with another mental model, “Wireless Communications as Internet.” This model is more recent and less well developed than the dominant spectrum/signals/radios model; it has been advanced by Open Spectrum advocates like Benkler, Werbach, and Weinberger [3]. Its salient elements are open standards, information transport, and decentralization of control. Since cognitive radio work focuses on system design, and the figure/ground relationship of devices in spectrum is less important than system architecture than in earlier, more passive technologies, the fit with the Wireless-as-Internet model is not surprising.

Even though Cognitive Radio is used by opponents of the traditional approach to argue for a complete rethinking of spectrum regulation, it is premised on the very structures they want to remove. The radio forms a hinge between the old and the new mindsets. The dominant perspective focuses on spectrum, then signals, and finally radios. The “Internet perspective” starts with radios as smart edge devices, and considers how they enable efficient information transport. Spectrum still plays a role as a means of communication, but it is no longer primary.


[1] Mitola, Joseph III, and Gerald Maguire (1999), “Cognitive Radio: Making Software Radios More Personal,” IEEE Personal Communications, August 1999, pp. 13-18

[2] Haykin, Simon (2005), “Cognitive Radio: Brain-Empowered Wireless Communications”, IEEE Journal on Selected Areas in Communications, Vol. 23, No. 2, February 2005, pp. 201-220

[3] See e.g. Yochai Benkler, “Some Economics of Wireless Communications,” (2002); Kevin Werbach, “Supercommons,” (2004); David Weinberger, “Why Open Spectrum Matters,” (2003)

Prize for gratuitous use of a USB port

The USB mug warmer - with the excuse that it's also a hub, to lessen feelings of guilt.

More on Thinkgeek:

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Phone 2020 - disrupting business models

The combination of flexible use spectrum licenses, software-defined radio, and mesh architecture could be a disruptive change in the next decade:

We’re just at the threshold of the new spectrum licensing regime. We’ve been seeing spectrum prices trend down, and that’s likely to continue particularly with more spectrum in flexible use. I think few people really understand what impact this regime will have effective spectrum availability

SDR combined with lots of places where the radio can operate will blur the boundary between licensed and unlicensed, and between PAN, LAN and WAN services. As far as users are concerned, it’ll be “just wireless”. SDR as such isn’t all that special; multiple cheap radios are already pointing the way. However, SDR will make system integration a little easier – provided that the power/compute challenges are met.

We’re asymptotically approaching the Shannon limit for single channel communications. However, multi-user information theory is still an active research field. It may turn out that Shepherd, Reed et al. were right that one can create architectures where capacity scales linearly or better with the number of nodes. (The best results I’ve seen so far scales with the square root of the number of nodes, so per-node capacity still decreases.) If this dream comes true, bandwidth per bandwidth (bits per hertz) could be much higher than current prudent planning assumes.

If you add these three together, the business of cellcos changes dramatically. Spectrum scarcity as an input constraint will be considerably weakened, as will the cellcos’ balance sheets – typically half the value of such companies is their spectrum licenses. If cellcos are to survive in this scenario, they’ll have to change their business; for comparison, once anyone could access airline ticket databases, travel agents could no longer live on commissions alone.

The change is analogous to the experience with watches. A hundred years ago, one paid for a watch in order to buy a timekeeper. Nowadays, we pay either for style (luxury watches), or for time management (calendar software, personal organizers).

Today we still buy communications when we pay for a cellphone; in fact, we’re buying the right to use a sliver of spectrum. In the future we’ll either buy style (designer phones) or comms management.

Communications management is required at various network layers. To simplify simply, we need comms management at the transport layer and the experience layer.

Transport management is a future business for cellcos: seamlessly combining personal, local and wide area networks into a cheap, high quality communications service. T-Mobile’s combined offer of telephony over Wi-Fi and cellular networks is an early incarnation of such a service.

Experience management is the business of content portals. MySpace is today’s paradigmatic example. Teens use text messaging and MySpace to stay in touch – not email. Places like MySpace provide the social structure which anchors the concentric conversations (1-1, communal, ambient) that will replace phone calls.

One can describe a comms management provider strategy as a “tuple play,” by analogy to the “triple play” and “quadruple play” in consumer broadband access. The goals is to integrate multiple communications services (the tuple) into a single product.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Phone 2020 - Trends and Constraints

The phone of a decade from now will not just be shaped by usage scenarios; the technical constraints also matter. Some are more stringent than others. Let's decompose a phone into its main hardware components: processing, storage, interface, connectivity and battery.

Storage is the least constrained component. Memory capacity is growing faster than Moore’s Law. The storage in the phone is essentially unlimited. The video comm-pod is just the start; we’ll be carrying around most of the data we need with us for the unlikely event that we’re not connected.

Compute power is also not constrained much. The key issue will be power consumption (see batteries, below). However, it’s reasonable to assume that Phone 2020 will offer all the fancy graphics and natural language computation that algorithms can offer (for example, speech synthesis that reads messages like Winston Churchill). Multiple radios and software defined radio (SDR) pose power consumption challenges, too.

The small size of the phone poses some user interface challenges. Audio and video input/output aren’t a problem. The standing challenge is quiet message input. Small keyboards are the current best bet, but they’re only marginally useful. Projected or roll-up keyboards don’t offer the tactile feedback required for efficient typing. Chorded input is the obvious solution – if it weren’t for the fact that chord keyboards have failed in the market time after time. Designers will try all sorts of other whacky options in coming years, from sub-vocalization to reading brainwaves.

Data connectivity is limited by the spectrum available, channel use efficiency, and electrical power. Ultra wideband will provide very fast short-range communication; system capacity for ranges beyond one’s personal space is more debatable. We are approaching the Shannon limit for single channel communication (cf. turbo and LDPC codes; MediaFLO uses turbo codes), but the wild card is multi-user channels, that is, mesh networks. It boils down to the question: is spectrum scarce? Since technology is driving up both data rates and user demand, the answer is up in the air. If spectrum capacity becomes a non-issue, we’ll see a lot of person-to-person live high definition video, and cellular companies as we know them today will disappear.

Battery technology is the biggest obstacle to size reduction and strange new form factors. Reducing battery size while maintaining power output increases power density; keeping size constant while increasing the charge (and thus battery life) does the same thing. Sony’s exploding batteries show how close to the hairy edge we are at the moment. If we can somehow break through the energy density barrier the world will look very different in ten years: tiny wireless earphones that go for weeks on a charge, self-winding phones, paper-thin devices, and even long-range wireless power supplies.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Phone 2020

Kenn Cukier challenged me to think about the future of the mobile phone 10-15 years (gulp) from now.

Phones then will be as diverse as timepieces today. At the one end of the range there will be “statement” phones that fill the same niche as luxury watches. They will be beautifully designed and fiendishly expensive. At the other end, just about every device with a battery will be wirelessly connected, just as every electronic device today will tell you the time.

Watches have changed our sense of time. In the (very) old days, community bells marked a few key moments in a day. The railways and telegraph created a world of scheduled communal events. Today, personal organizers chivvy us from one meeting to the next, and professionals on billable hours slice their day into fifteen minute slivers.

Concentric conversations

Phones are changing our sense of being in touch. Like watches, it’s a cumulative process; every successive communications technology has connected us more efficiently to people who are not next to us. By the time of the 2020 Phone we’ll have a very more richly textured sense of being connected to individuals and groups, and to the world. We’ll have a richly textured sense of our social world. We’ll be engaged in layers of conversation: foreground chats with one or more people, the background hum and buzz of the social groups we’re tracking using an evolved form of the in-game voice chat that’s common with on-line multi-player games, to changes in the phones shape and color giving us ambient clues to what’s going on in our world.

Google and Wikipedia changed my sense of what’s knowable about the world: I feel a little loss when I’m not connected, because I can’t instantly find the answer to a question the world poses to me. Blogs and social networking sites are changing our sense of the knowability of the social world; by 2020, we’ll have this with us all the time, and we’ll have a deeper knowing of our environment – physical, intellectual, and social.

Overlapping rings of always-on conversations chance the notion of a “phone call.” The 2020 Phone will be a means to plug into multiple concurrent conversations, and bring individual threads into focus when we need them.

Form factors

Phones will look and feel different, though they’ll still be hand-sized:

New materials will allow them to fold up small but expand when we need them, like the 2secondtent.

Phones will fragment into a constellation of wireless objects. Headsets are already disconnected. Visual output will be routed to whatever screen’s available – perhaps the video screens coming soon to a restaurant table near you.

Earbuds will become almost invisible; they’ll be wireless themselves, of course, and will have noise cancellation built in. They’ll layer our sonic social world over the world just outside our ear.
If people still wear glasses, they’ll contain phones and use the lenses as display devices.

Phones will glow, vibrate, change their texture, shape and color as ways to signal to the user, and for the user to signal to other – the phone as a chameleon crossed with a coal mine canary. Ambient offers a variety of products, and a chipset other manufacturers can incorporate into their products. The Nabaztag rabbit changes color and moves its ears depending on what’s happening remotely. In the end, we get to “phoneskin signaling.”

Some clothing will provide inputs for brain UI: hats; sweatbands; dew rags, perhaps. Today’s versions are not fashion statements, but we’ll get there… It also takes 5-10 minutes to write a sentence; but with a decade’s development, we’ll be able to compose Crackberry messages without being so obvious about it.

Phones as sensors

Perhaps the biggest change in phones is that they will become networked sensors. Phones already sense their geographical location. Going beyond this:
  • Microsoft researchers have turned phones into barcode scanners that connect to atabases of personal items; RFID integration is an obvious next step
  • IntelliOne has developed a system that detects traffic jams by monitoring the signals from cellphones in cars
  • The PigeonBlog project has fitted birds with GPS sensors, air pollution sensors and a basic cellphone to measure air quality in California. If birds can do it, why not humans?
  • Michael Reilly describes how cheap sensors are turning pollution monitoring into an activity anyone can take part in. In general, phones will be used to measure any situation and integrate the results from thousands of other devices; not just pollution and traffic, but micro-climate, crowding, noise level, and smells. The whole will be greater than the parts because of collective data gathering; cf. digg and its ilk.
  • Personal medical sensors will connect to medical advisors via the phone.

Commercial uses

The applications described so far are consumer-centered. However, commercial uses will be just as pervasive, though less visible. Any connected device will be able to go wireless. Shopping trolleys will keep a running total of the goods deposited in them, and prepare a bill for when you leave the store. Many products will call-home functionality built in, funded by the manufacturers; they’ll want to know how their product is used, and when it needs to be serviced or replaced. (Yes, this could be a privacy issue when it’s a consumer product, but only the privacy advocates will care. Ordinary people only worry about privacy when it touches their wallets, as in identity theft.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Translating between Marxese and AdamSmithish

When academic sociologists and policy types get together, socialist jargon is a given. Ironically, there are structural similarities between their research topics and the way capitalists use free-market clich├ęs to describe their problems.

I attended a workshop on “The Global Rise of Horizontal Communication: Social Networks, Civil Society and The Media” last week. It was organized by ARNIC and held at the Annenberg Center at USC. Terms like social movement, power, collective processes, media systems and mobilization were rife.

However, with a bit of translation it sounded just like a business conference. Case studies were the order of the day – research focused on describing what was happening, with little attention to underlying Why questions – and the transformative power of technology was taken for granted.

The key to the translation was this mapping from left-wing sociology to right-wing commerce:

The setting and mechanism: social movements → markets
The desired outcome: social change → economic growth
The key action: appropriation → innovation
The hero: activists → entrepreneurs

With this handy guide, visitors from each world can learn a lot from the other. Social change activists could benefit from the clear statements of goals and metrics that are de rigueur in business. On the other hand, businesses could learn from the focus on inclusivity and grass-roots action espoused by communications theorists.